Early Home Video Game History: Making Television Play

The Strong National Museum of Play

Curators from The Strong museum take us on a journey through the rise of home video gaming. The television provided the spark that fueled the inventors of the first home video game consoles, followed by the cartridge, which made video games infinitely expandable. Look back at the moment arcade games came home, the explosion of “Pac-Mania,” and the emergence of the iconic grey box that revived an industry: the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Atari Home Pong Advertisement Drawing Atari Home Pong Advertisement Drawing (1976)The Strong National Museum of Play

TV Games

Housed at The Strong museum in Rochester, New York, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games collects, preserves, and interprets the history of video games, including thousands of home video games and related materials. This exhibit explores how video games first entered the home.

Zenith Space Command Model 400 Television (ca. 1960) by Zenith Radio Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play

The Rise of Television

After World War II, the United States population boomed, surging from 133 million in 1945 to 180 million by 1960. As wages grew and the middle class expanded, so too did demand for modern gadgets like televisions. Between 1948 and 1955, nearly two-thirds of American homes installed televisions.

"Television: Buying and installing it is fun; these ideas will help you" (1949-09) by Better Homes and GardensThe Strong National Museum of Play

Making Room for TV

Television technology emerged in the 1920s, but it took two decades to build the infrastructure necessary to place TVs in millions of homes. In this article, the authors tackle the question of where to put a new TV. Note that a mere 16-inch-screen was considered an ideal viewing size for up to seven people.

Making Room for TV

Television technology emerged in the 1920s, but it took two decades to build the infrastructure necessary to place TVs in millions of homes. In this article, the authors tackle the question of where to put a new TV. Note that a mere 16-inch-screen was considered an ideal viewing size for up to seven people.

Crosley Family Theatre Television Advertisement (1950-11) by Better Homes and GardensThe Strong National Museum of Play

In the Family

By the 1950s, many Americans who had endured the dislocations and hardships caused by the Great Depression and World War II welcomed the stability of the family home. Advertisements like this one placed television at the heart of white, middle class American domestic life.

Television Gaming and Training Apparatus Patent US3728480-1 (1971) by Ralph BaerThe Strong National Museum of Play

Playing with Television

In August 1966, while waiting for a colleague at a New York City bus station, German-Jewish immigrant and engineer Ralph Baer conceived the idea of playing games on a television. The next morning, he wrote down his ideas that became the basis for a video game playing device that plugged into a TV.

Ralph Baer's Brown Box Reproduction (2010)The Strong National Museum of Play

Building the “Brown Box”

Throughout 1967, Ralph Baer and his Sanders Associates colleagues Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch worked on video game prototypes. Baer convinced his bosses to invest $2,000 and time to develop it, but the defense contractor didn’t know what to do with the “Brown Box” console prototype the trio built.

Ralph Baer and his Brown BoxThe Strong National Museum of Play

Magnavox Odyssey (1972) by Magnavox CompanyThe Strong National Museum of Play

The First Home Video Game Console

After gathering dust at Sanders, the firm licensed the technology to TV maker Magnavox who turned the “Brown Box” into a marketable product. In 1972, the company launched Odyssey. To help sell the machine, they added colored plastic screen overlays, playing cards, and other familiar game items. Nevertheless, it sold a modest 350,000 units.

Magnavox Mini Theater and Odyssey Demonstration Film Cartridge (c. 1972) by United Visuals CorporationThe Strong National Museum of Play

Selling Home Video Games

Few people could have imagined playing games on their televisions. Magnavox used point-of-purchase display kiosks and a promotional film to help familiarize people with the technology. And like many advertisements for early TVs, the film placed the video game console at the center of the family room.

Magnavox Odyssey demonstration film (1972)The Strong National Museum of Play

Pong Arcade Game (1977) by AtariThe Strong National Museum of Play

Video Games Go… Pong

If Magnavox’s Odyssey readied the market for home video games, Atari’s 1972 table tennis-themed, arcade video game, Pong, created a market of its own. Its simple instructions, “Avoid missing ball for high score,” go far to explain its intuitive gameplay and commercial success.

Home Pong Chip Plot (1975) by Atari, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Plotting Home Pong

By 1974, Americans played Pong in arcades across the United States, but Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and Pong designer Al Alcorn dreamed of shrinking the arcade game down to a microprocessor that could fit inside a home video game console. Engineer Harold Lee developed this computer-chip plot for Home Pong.

Sears Tele-Games Home Pong (1975)The Strong National Museum of Play

Pong Partners

Making Home Pong hinged on a deal with leading U.S. retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company. In exchange for exclusive rights to sell the Sears “Tele-Games”-branded console during the 1975 holiday season, the firm provided Atari with manufacturing and quality control expertise, and free advertising.

Home Pong Game Play (1975)The Strong National Museum of Play

Sears Christmas Wish Book (1975) by SearsThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Gift of Home Video Games

Sears’ nationwide distribution landed Home Pong on the shelves of hundreds of its retail stores. A full-page ad in the sporting goods section of the retailer’s Christmas Wish Book mail order catalog and under $100 price tag, helped make the video game console the hottest toy of the 1975 holiday season.

Coleco Telstar (1976) by Coleco Industries, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Knocking Off Home Pong

By 1977, Home Pong, and its sequels, copies, and variants such as Japanese play company Nintendo’s Color TV-Game 6 and toy manufacturer Coleco’s Telstar video game consoles flooded the video game market. Millions of people all over the world played some version of Pong on their home televisions.

Fairchild Channel F Videocart-1: Tic-Tac-Toe, Shooting Gallery, Doodle, Quadra-Doodle Fairchild Channel F Videocart-1: Tic-Tac-Toe, Shooting Gallery, Doodle, Quadra-Doodle (1976) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play

The Video Game Cartridge

As millions played Pong on their TVs, engineers at Alpex Computer Corporation and Fairchild Semiconductor were already developing a way to expand the number of games playable on a single console. Released in 1976, Fairchild’s Channel F console featured the first interchangeable video game cartridge.

Fairchild Channel F Video Game Console Second Generation Prototype Printed Circuit Board (c. 1975) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play

Making Home Video Games Infinitely Expandable

African-American engineer Jerry Lawson led the creation of the first commercial cartridge-based home video game console. Fairchild’s Channel F allowed players to purchase separately and play a variety of games. Lawson created this second generation prototype printed circuit board while developing the console.

Fairchild Channel F Video Game Console (1976) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play

A New Home Video Game Market

The Channel F introduced the first interchangeable game cartridges, human vs. computer matches, and the pause button. Nevertheless, the cutting-edge, but poorly marketed console wasn’t a commercial success as companies such as RCA, Magnavox, and Atari released competing cartridge-based systems.

RCA Studio II TV School House I (1976) by RCAThe Strong National Museum of Play

New Gaming Possibilities

Cartridge-based consoles promised a growing array of video games for players and greater opportunities for programmers. In 1976, Joyce Weisbecker, the first woman to program commercial video games, developed the quiz game TV Schoolhouse I and the racing and chase game Speedway/Tag for the RCA Studio II.

Atari Video Computer System (1977) by Atari, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Atari Re-enters the Home

No video game console did more to ignite the home video game revolution than Atari’s Video Computer System (VCS). But after its release in 1977, Atari’s first cartridge-based system struggled to gain traction in a market defined by discounted Home Pong copies and competing cartridge-based consoles.

Mattel Intellivision (1979) by MattelThe Strong National Museum of Play

Intelligent Television

In 1980, toymaker and handheld electronic game pioneer Mattel launched the Intellivision, the first cartridge-based console to truly compete with Atari’s VCS. Mattel developed an advertising campaign and hired literati George Plimpton to sell the console as sophisticated and graphically superior.

Atari Space Invaders (1978) by Atari, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Bringing the Arcade Home

While the VCS sold modestly, the arcade boomed as millions of players blasted an onslaught of aliens in Taito’s 1978 game Space Invaders. Sensing an opportunity, Atari licensed a home version, and along with other arcade hits such as Asteroids and Missile Command, it helped sell millions of consoles.

Atari Video Computer System Pac-Man (1982) by Atari, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Pac-Mania

Namco’s 1980 maze game Pac-Man captured the imaginations of millions of people who couldn’t get enough of its yellow, pizza-shaped title character. Atari sold more than 7 million copies of the 1982 licensed home version of the game and many players bought a VCS (redubbed the 2600) just to play it.

Pac-Man Game Play (1982)The Strong National Museum of Play

ColecoVision: The Arcade Quality Video Game System (1982) by Coleco Industries, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

From Boom to Bust

By 1982, video games were everywhere. That year, consumers spent $8 billion in video game arcades and another $3 billion on home video games. But as game manufacturers and developers overinvested, overproduced, and saturated the market with more and more products, the video game market collapsed.

Atari 2600 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial "Atari Dig" (1982) by Atari, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Buried but Not Dead

Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial did not cause the video game market crash, but the underperforming game came to symbolize the industry’s hubris and excesses. In 2014, the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico excavated this cartridge from a landfill where Atari dumped truckloads of its unsold products.

Nintendo Entertainment System Control Deck (1988) by NintendoThe Strong National Museum of Play

Conclusion: Playing with Power

Released in North America in 1985, few people outside of Japan believed the Nintendo Entertainment System could succeed. The NES not only succeeded, but it also proved home video games weren’t a fad by selling nearly 62 million units worldwide and almost single-handedly resuscitating the home game market.

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